GRACELAND Series Premiere Advance Review USA Network

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NUP_155125_4341It drew a lot of buzz and excitement when the trailer for Graceland was shown at the 2012 USA Network Upfronts. Created by Jeff Eastin (creator of White Collar which airs on the same network), it already has a ready-made fan base before the first snippet of the show even saw the light of day. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the show stars one of the hottest names and faces right now, Aaron Tveit, whose portrayal of Enjolras in last year’s big screen musical version of Les Miserables, had us all in tears and applauding at his talent.

To clarify, Graceland is not set in Memphis or about the life and times of Elvis Presley. According to Eastin, the premise of the show – in which undercover agents from the FBI, Customs and Drug Enforcement Agency share a house on the beach in Southern California – is based on real life events.  In this case, the house the agents live in is so-named because it was seized from a drug lord who was a hard-core Elvis fan.

We all love a fish-out-of-water story, and Graceland delivers in spades. Our fish is newly-minted FBI agent, Mike Warren (Tveit), who, as a star graduate, expected to be assigned to D.C., but at the last minute, was sent to SoCal to join the team as an emergency placement after DEA agent Donnie Banks (Clayne Crawford) was shot and his cover blown during a sting gone wrong. His partner, Lauren Kincaid (Scottie Thompson), managed to keep her cover intact, but is not happy with Mike’s arrival.

NUP_155125_0066For his part, Mike is smart (graduated top of his class) and excited to learn from Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), a highly-decorated and legendary FBI agent who is something of a leader of the mixed team at Graceland. Keeping Briggs in check is his boss, Gerry Silvo (Jay Karnes).  And then there’s the Big Boss, Agent Sam Campbell (Courtney B. Vance), whose biggest piece of advice to the new graduates is that life as an FBI agent will not be anything like they expect it to be.

Despite his lack of field experience, Mike proves himself to be a fast learner (surfing, Spanish and the art of wearing flip-flops). As undercover agents, Briggs advises Mike: “your lies are your life”. But in Graceland, there are no secrets between the agents, except for Briggs, whose unexplained sabbatical from the FBI a few years ago, makes him a big mystery – and the reason for Mike’s assignment at Graceland.

Series pilots can sometimes be a little tedious as they try to introduce all the characters and their relationships with each other, while also providing enough entertainment to keep the audience coming back. We get a glimpse of this world of secrets and lies through the eyes of Mike as he meets each of his new roommates. He is picked up from the airport by fellow FBI Agent Joe “Johnny” Tutturro (Manny Montana) and gets a tour akin to an initiation into the college dorm, setting him up for trouble with Customs agent Dale Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren), who seems a little territorial with his breakfast foods. He gets a slightly warmer welcome from another FBI agent, Catherine “Charlie” Lopez (Vanessa Ferlito), though not quite the first impression he would have expected.

Mike has very little time to settle into his new life before he is given his first job trying to take out a link in the chain of Mexican/Russian drug dealers who Lauren and Donnie had been working undercover with. A simple sting set up by Briggs ends up with complications when Mike’s cover is almost blown, and a more elaborate scheme is required to save the lives of a number of people. Mike is quick on his feet and quickly earns himself a nickname in the house.

Fans of White Collar will feel a sense of familiarity as they watch Graceland (not the least of which is the safe house scene) which is not surprising given Eastin enlisted a trusted crew for this pilot (and even many of the writers for the series) including producer Keira Morrisette, director Russell Lee Fine, composer Jon Ehrlich and editor Doug Hannah, to name a few.  There is Eastin’s trademark sense of humor as well as the edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger.  However, Graceland is much darker given the world these agents operate in, but the sun, surf and sand ensures this show still fits within the USA Network “blue sky” world.

Even if you have watched the special preview on On Demand last month, it will not take away the enjoyment you will get from repeated viewing of this pilot episode – it will just make you keener to see the rest. My only disappointment is that Scottie Thompson’s Lauren will not stick around for the series, but we will see the introduction of Paige (Serinda Swan) for the remainder of the season, whose absence in the pilot is explained in a throwaway line that she is away on assignment.

GRACELAND “Pilot” premieres on USA Network on Thursday, June 6, at 10/9c.

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